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Cultural Exchange: 'Presumed Guilty' turns the lens on Mexico's legal system

Antonio Zuniga was convicted twice despite a flimsy case. 'Presumed Guilty' shows the fight to get him free. The documentary is a huge success in Mexico.

March 20, 2011|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Antonio Zuniga, protagonist of the documentary "Presumed Guilty," in Mexico City on Feb. 16, 2011.
Antonio Zuniga, protagonist of the documentary "Presumed Guilty,"… (Alexandre Meneghini / Associated…)

A young man is arrested off the street for a fatal shooting he did not commit. Never mind that he has an alibi and witnesses. Never mind that ballistics tests show no sign of gunpowder on his hands. Never mind that the young man who fingers him does so belatedly, and then can't describe him.

Instead what ensues is a slow-motion train wreck of justice in which the suspect, Antonio Zuniga, is convicted — twice — by the same judge, even though investigators are discredited and the witness recants. Zuniga is sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Welcome to Mexico's groaning mess of a legal system, long known as a closed-door factory of injustice. What makes this case different, though, is that we get to watch the debacle unfold at close range, courtesy of a remarkable documentary film that in a month has become a huge success in Mexico.

The movie is "Presunto Culpable," or "Presumed Guilty," which, through its tight focus on a low-profile throw-away case, offers a blistering indictment of the country's shrouded judicial apparatus. Architects of Mexico's touted war on drug cartels would do well to watch and take careful notes — no crime crackdown seems likely to yield lasting success until the country cleans up a justice system that few Mexicans trust. Despite winning plaudits in film festivals abroad since 2009, the movie began showing across Mexico only last month.

The protagonist of "Presumed Guilty" is Zuniga, an amateur hip-hop artist and seller of video games who is grabbed by police in Mexico City in 2005 and charged with killing a young man in another neighborhood. The other protagonists are the husband and wife lawyer team who made the film — Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete, doctoral candidates at UC Berkeley — who agree to help Zuniga after his first conviction.

The couple win a retrial after discovering that the defense lawyer in the first trial had faked his credentials. They are granted permission to film the new trial — and this turns out to be the key breakthrough for their client and the audience.

It is through the retrial video, with gritty immediacy, that viewers experience the sweep of the failings of Mexico's justice system, from the teeming Mexico City prison where Zuniga sleeps on a blanket on the floor to the "courtroom," a cramped and stuffy office where the defendant watches the proceedings through the bars of a cage. The judge seems out of his league, the prosecutor giggles as her case crumbles, the police present a thick-necked wall of "I don't remember."

When Zuniga, from behind the bars, is able to question the main prosecution witness, Victor Daniel Reyes, the victim's cousin, the film offers its triumphal, "Rocky" moment. After a delicious, tension-filled pause, Reyes admits, "I didn't see who it was who shot."

When asked why she would press such a hollow case, the prosecutor draws guffaws in audiences with her answer. "It's my job," she says. Despite the certain turnaround, though, the judge's second verdict is no different from his first: guilty. The camera follows Zuniga, looking like a defeated fighter, as he navigates the dim tunnel back to his prison.

The filmmakers take the trial footage to a magistrate, part of a three-member appeals panels, who sees enough to convince his two colleagues to exonerate Zuniga with a finding of "reasonable doubt." The appellate decision crowns a story that bears fairy tale-like touches. In prison, Zuniga and his steadfast girlfriend wed, she gets pregnant during a conjugal visit. He walks out of the prison gates to embrace his infant daughter. Zuniga's hip-hop recordings become the soundtrack for the film.

But the feel-good climax is tempered by a sickening question: How many more Antonio Zunigas languish in Mexico's prisons? The film notes that 92% of convictions are based not on physical evidence but on witness testimony.

"Presumed Guilty" was temporarily knocked off screens this month after Reyes, the prosecution witness, complained he had not given permission for use of his image. A separate tribunal overruled the temporary suspension, restoring the film to movie houses. Then the federal judge who issued the initial suspension said the film could be shown but with the witness' identity protected.

The film had drawn nearly 1 million viewers and earned about $4 million by March 11, according to industry figures.

Much of "Presumed Guilty's" popular appeal lies in bolstering what many Mexicans already think about their nation's legal system — that it is opaque, corrupt and unworthy of their trust.

"It gives us a reality, sadly, of the lack of seriousness of Mexican authorities," said Brigida Lopez, a 65-year-old homemaker who was exiting the film on a recent day. "It's the truth. This is what we know happens."

Mexico is trying to address that by easing in more open, U.S-style court trials to replace a system of closed proceedings based almost entirely on exchanges of thick files of paperwork. To bring better law enforcement to Mexico, the video camera could prove far more potent than the cop's pistol.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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